A 3-YEAR-OLD REACTS TO THE BIRTH OF A SIBLING

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I’ve read Dr. Brazelton’s book (“Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” Da Capo, 2005) but I need additional information about how to help an older child (3 years old) transition with the birth of a sibling. Our daughter is having major separation anxiety.

A. Often, when a child is experiencing separation anxiety, a parent is, too. I can make any mother cry when she announces a second pregnancy to me. All I have to say is what she is feeling but can’t quite face: “You will be deserting that older child.”

She’ll start weeping, but as we talk, she realizes that she must face these feelings if she is to be able to help the first child put this new family member into perspective.

On some level, the mother-to-be may identify with the older child’s feelings: “How could you do this to me?” translates into “How could I impose a second child on the first?”

But until she is able to answer this question for herself, she will find it difficult to answer if for the child. As long as she doubts this decision, and fears that she really is “harming” the first child, then this is the unnerving message that child is likely to receive. The child isn’t likely to forgive the mother for this “abandonment” until she can stop seeing it this way, until she can forgive herself.

Parents always worry in second or later pregnancies, “Will I have enough to go around for another child?” But of course they will. Children learn to adjust to new siblings as they come along. This adjustment can teach them important lessons that they will need to get along in the world later on, for example, that the world does not revolve around them.

Siblings get so much from each other – in the way of learning (learning how to compete, how to resent a sibling and yet to love the other anyway). They learn to share, and to care for each other.

Just watch the younger one imitate the older one in learning a new developmental step. The younger one will watch and watch, then put the whole step together – all from imitation and from modeling on the older one: “visual learning.”

Giving a child a sibling is like giving him a gift. But don’t expect the older child to thank you when you bring your new baby home. She won’t recognize the gift of this unique new relationship until much later on.

Preparation for the new baby while you are pregnant will help you and your first child face the “separation.” For you the “separation” from her will be an emotional one – so much of your energy will be called up to focus on the new baby. Already your 3-year-old can feel the family’s attention begin to shift away from her.

But you can involve her in this new family event too: “Feel mommy’s tummy. Can you feel the baby you and I will take care of? This will be your baby as well as mine.”

Play out the nurturing with a toy or a doll. Show the older child how to cuddle and feed a beloved baby doll beforehand. She may even want to diaper it. “Now you know how to love the baby like your doll or your truck. You can help me when we have a baby.”

For your 3-year-old, though, the separation she is most worried about is the time when you will go to the hospital. It’s all so mysterious, and so hard to explain.

What will happen? Will you be OK? Will you come back? To help prepare her, you must let your daughter know who will be with her while you are giving birth to the new baby. Encourage her to talk with that important person – her father, a grandparent – beforehand, to plan it all out. Then, when you come home, let your daughter help with the new baby as you’ve rehearsed.

You might also take a new special “lovey” – a stuffed animal or a doll – home with the new baby so that 3-year-old can nurture it, imitating you with the new baby.

But don’t expect your oldest child to share your enthusiasm for the new baby right away. Even if she does at first, the novelty will soon fade. Sulking, temper tantrums and the temporary re-emergence of other old behaviors are predictable.

Don’t pressure her to be a “big” sister, and don’t overdo the praise when she does try to nurture the new baby. Instead, let her know that she will always be your first baby, and that if she feels like being a baby sometimes now too, that’s OK with you. She’s far more likely to step into these big new shoes if you let her step into them herself, when she’s ready.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.